Neither wind, dense fog, churning seas, or screaming maniacs…

Skate Ray – Stearns Wharf

…will stay this fisherman from making his rounds.

And that is what I was up against yesterday when I paid a visit to Stearns Wharf.

I didn’t think I’d be able to get out to the ocean this week because of prior commitments but when a full day suddenly opened up yesterday, I decided to go up to the wharf, which is quickly becoming my favorite fishing venue.  There was a small craft advisory issued for the channel by the national weather service so I knew it would be wet and cold but when I finally arrived at the wharf just before 7 AM, I found a few more factors in play.

The wind was howling, the sea was churning wildly, and a screaming maniac was pacing around in one corner of the wharf apparently having a conversation with the mariner’s warning light which was not on at the time.  The wind and the wild sea is something you learn to deal with if you fish in the ocean but nut cases are not.  This person’s issue seemed to be with the light standard and nothing else but his constant howling was a distraction which I had to check on in case he decided he wanted some REAL trouble with me.  That never happened and as more and more fishermen, joggers, and tourists came around, I stopped paying attention to him since he was not bothering any of them.  I kept expecting the Harbor Patrol or the city police to show up and take the guy somewhere where he could get help but that never happened and after a few hours, I saw him wander away.

As he did, the sun broke through for a while and the fishing which had been slow until then suddenly picked up.  I caught 6 Smelts which was a surprise since I don’t fish for them but these fish were all larger than the usual ones that hang around the wharf.  The same was true about the 9 Mackerel I caught, all of which were over a foot long and all fierce fighters.  I kept 4 of the biggest for bait and released the rest.  Then, I caught something with my ocean bottom. 

It was a large Skate Ray and at 33” in length it was easily one of the biggest I have ever caught.  There were no other fishermen near me when I finally brought the ray to the surface but an Asian lady had come over when she saw me fighting the fish and clapped happily when she finally saw it.  So I asked her if she wanted to help land it.  Despite the language barrier between us, I managed, by pantomiming, to get her to understand my question.  She was thrilled when I handed her the pole and indicated that she needed to hold on tightly.  Then I got out my gaff, lowered it into the ocean, hooked the ray, and brought him onto the pier.  This got another round of clapping and dancing.  As I was unhooking the animal, a young man came over to us; he was the lady’s son who spoke better English than I do.  When I told him was happened he gave his mom a high-five, took some pictures of her and ray, and passed on my thanks for her help.

After that, I moved to the corner of the wharf where the screaming maniac had been holding court with his demons.  The wind had come up again and the ocean continued to churn but I kept catching a fish now and then and all were larger than usual. I began to wonder if the active ocean bottom had anything to do with the presence of these larger fish? I make a note of it if this happens again when I am out.

When it was time to go, I heard someone talking on his cell phone as I packed up.  Looking over at the guy, sitting not 10 feet from me, I saw that he had no phone and no one was near him.  He was talking to the wind.

You sure get a lot of odd balls on Stearns Wharf.

Drift Lining

My time to get out to the pier, the wharf, the shore, and a planned boat excursion, is going to be limited for a while due to prior commitments so I thought I’d explain what I mean when I mentioned in many of my posts that I fish with a drift line.  The concept is simple but actually fishing this way can be a challenge.

As I mentioned in an early blog post, my grandpa always advised me to take a fishing pole and what he called a “wishing pole” with me when I had a chance to do so.  The wishing pole is one that I would weight down, bait up, and cast out to the deepest part of the lake, ocean, or river that I could reach.  Then I’d set my drag so it would alert me when a fish is on the line.  This pole would be used to fish for all the bottom feeding fish that tended to be larger and put up a better fight than fish who do not feed this way.  Submarine size Carp and Catfish are examples of freshwater bottom feeders while Rays and Sharks are examples of saltwater bottom feeders.    

Going after bottom feeders with your wishing pole is simple and easy to do and I think it is the way most people fish even when they use live bait.  However, going after the rest of the fish out there with your fishing pole rigged as a drift line takes more effort than simply setting your drag.  For one thing, you should never set your fishing pole when practicing this method especially when there are hard hitting fish like Mackerel and Bass in the water. 

A drift line is simply a line with no weights or bobber on it.  You can have multiple hooks if you want a greater challenge like catching three Mackerel at a time, which I have done many times.  Your fishing pole should be as light weight as you dare use and the lighter the better, I say, since I like a good fight and I like to give the fish a chance.  I always use my old ultra-light rig when I drift line so there is a 50-50 chance that I will either haul in my catch or it will get away.  Since I only fish for sport, this doesn’t matter to me.   

Whatever you use, it should be easy to cast with only the weight of the bait on it since no lead weights are used in this method.  Using a bobber is close to drift lining but it is not the same since your bait is being held in place in the water, at one level.  Though your line can drift anyway it wants, it cannot drift down which is key element in drift lining.

Drift lining is used to fish for all the rest of the fish out there besides bottom feeders though you can occasionally hook one.  In drift lining, you cast your bait into the water and let it drift where ever it may go.  As it sinks to the bottom, your bait can attract any fish at an water level.  In the ocean, you often have Smelt sitting just below the surface, with Mackerel beneath or mixed in with them.  As your bait drifts lower, it can attract Perch and Bass.  If it hits bottom and you are content to let it sit there for a while, you can pick up a bottom feeder but since you are using light tackle, you have to hope it is not too big.

One day while I was fishing at Stearns Wharf, the Smelt that are usually around had moved off to another area which allowed me to catch 33 Mackerel in a few hours.  One time, my bait made it through the horde of Mackerel that were lurking about and my line drifted closed to the pilings just beneath my feet.  Suddenly, I got a hit that I knew was not that of a Mackerel, it was stronger, but slower and after a pretty fierce battle, I reeled in a nice size Calico Bass.  Until that time, I didn’t know there were bass under the wharf.  So I started fishing for them.  Six more times my bait made it through the school of Mackerel and I ended up with 7 Calico Bass on the day.  A total of 40 fish in about 3 ½ hours.  I was very busy and I owe it all to the drift lining method.

As I said at the start, though, fishing this way can be a real challenge due to the following reasons:

  • First, you have to be aware of where your line is at all times, especially if fishing in a area where others are also fishing since you do not want to cross their lines.  This means paying close attention to what you are doing. 
  • Second, since you should be using the lightest tackle you dare use, you will feel every little nibble and the temptation will be to yank your line up on each one but as I wrote about in a previous blog, grandpa always said that patience is the best bait.  This is what he was referring to.  If you are an experienced fisherman, you most likely know a hit from a nibble but when drift lining, the nibbles can multiply greatly so you have to be patient.  When a real hit occurs you’ll know.  The same is even truer for beginning fisherman and it is something you will learn over time so don’t give up on the method.
  • Third, I always recommend that you keep your pole in your hands at all times when drift lining and you have bait in the water.  The reason is that since you are using light tackle, it would not be that much of a challenge for a good-sized Calico Bass or speeding Mackerel to pull your rig into the water and since you are looking for hits as soon as they happen, you need to be ready to set your hook at any time which you can’t do if you are not holding your pole in your hands.
  • Fourth, since your bait starts at the surface and drifts downward, it will eventually hit bottom where you can leave it if you wish, but since you may have another pole baited for bottom feeders it is a good idea to keep your drift line moving which means a full day of reeling in and casting out.  I like this because it keeps me busy and because I like to have bait in the water at all levels of water as much as possible.
  • Fifth, wind can really affect fishing this way.  When the wind is blowing so hard that you are having trouble keeping your bait in the water, you can add a small weight to compensate for it.  If you choose not to use one, you have to be just that much more vigilant about watching where your line is at any given time.

So, that is the drift lining method.  I have caught thousands of fish this way even when others around me were being shut out.  Though I have told and shown many fishermen this method, I have not seen that many actually use it because of the attention needed to be successful when using this method.

Pier fishing is for the birds

In the 60 years since my grandfather taught me how to fish, I have fished in almost every way that you can fish (the exception being fly fishing). 

I have fished freshwater in boats, on the shore, and from fishing docks.  I have fished saltwater in boats, on the shore, and from piers.  In all of these venues I never encountered the “problems” with birds like you have when pier fishing in whatever ocean you happen to be near.  Freshwater fishing never has a problem with birds and ocean fishing never has a problem with them either unless you are on a “party boat” that is releasing offal to attract fish.  This also attracts Sea Gulls but in that arena, they usually don’t bother the fishermen, they want the offal, not your bait.   

Don’t get me wrong, in most instances I love having seabirds around because if they are out over the water, they tell you that there are fish in the area and where you can find them.  Pelicans are especially good at this which is why I love them.  When people come up and talk to me about fishing while I am on the pier, I often mention the birds and how they can tell you if the day will be a good one or a bad one for fishing.  Most people, especially fishermen, don’t think this way. 

Following is a short list of birdlife I see most often on piers followed by their pluses and minuses.  Keep in mind that I love them all though some can be very pesky and one species can totally ruin a day of fishing.

  • Pelicans – As I said above, I love Pelicans.  They are an unwieldy looking bird whose beaks are almost as long as their bodies yet when in flight they look in perfect symmetry, everything about them is as it should be.  When a flock of them come in flying just above water as they hunt for schools of fish, you wonder how such a ponderous looking creature can fly with such precision.  When they spot their prey and begin striking the water one after another, you have to cheer for them.  You also know exactly where the fish are.
  • Sea Gulls…  – …are always a nuisance.  When they are not trying to steal your catch, they are sneaking up behind you trying to steal your bait.  They don’t have much luck with me because I always keep my bait in sealed containers and I always secure my catch (unless distracted by the landing of a 5-foot Tiger Shark).  Still, you have to watch for them because they are fearless and may try to pull the cover off of your bait (I have seen this happen).  They can really distract you from fishing.  Still, when they are acting like real seabirds, they can hunt for fish like Pelicans do, so they tell you where the fish are located. 
  • Pigeons While not a seabird they are usually the most abundant of feathered friends on piers.  Though they will snatch up an unattended piece of bait, they are not aggressive about it and most of the time they just get underfoot.  The problem with them is they also get under the pier, in flight.  With so many of them around, it is not unusual to see one of them accidentally strike a line.  In an earlier blog post I detail how I “caught” one.
  • Western Jackdaws I am not an ornithologist so I am guessing what this species is.  They look like shrunken crows and I found out that they are related to crows; they can also be as pesky as a Sea Gull.  They are cute little things and you almost want to feed them but feeding wild animals is never a good idea because you don’t want any of them to become dependent on a human provided food supply.  Unlike pigeons who stroll about and get underfoot, these little birds hop all over the pier looking for anything they can steal for a meal.  I usually have a small supply of cut bait ready to go so I can get my line in the water right away after losing a piece of it to nibblers.  I have taken to putting a cloth over these bits of bait just because of these birds.  Unlike Sea Gulls they are so small and quick and there is no way you can monitor your bait to keep them from stealing it.    
  • Cormorants These simply amazing birds “fly” underwater just a easily as they do while in the air.  When they are around, you know there are fish around too.  They can also very easily ruin a day of fishing.  Unlike all the previous birds, you rarely see a Cormorant on the pier, they are birds of the water and that is where they prefer to be.  The problem with them is they not only will try to steal your catch as you are reeling it in, they ALSO will go after your bait and if you use a drift line like I do, that can be a huge problem because the last thing you want to do is catch one of these birds.  What’s more is that you don’t always see them when you cast out even if you are looking for them.  They can be submerged, see your bait hit the water and be after it with astonishing speed.  Last week there were several of them lurking about the pier I was on and no matter what I did, I could not dodge them.  I finally gave up and went in early.    

Memory: Canyon Lake

Canyon Lake, Arizona

As I mentioned in my last Memory posting (Encanto Park) after I found a good job, bought a car, and could afford to travel, I began to fish in many of the lakes around and outside of the Phoenix area. 

Lake Pleasant was one of the newer lakes and the closest to where I lived.  While I caught many nice Striped Bass, Crappie, and Perch in the lake, it was altogether uninspiring as far as looks go.  It is essentially a big man-made puddle of water. 

I also fished in Apache Lake, Roosevelt Lake, and Saguaro Lake which are all nice lakes where you can catch your limit of whatever freshwater fish on any given day, but for pure, awesome beauty, plus fish, you cannot beat Canyon Lake .

Though I cannot swim a stroke (something about the rocks in my head pulling me down), as often as I could afford it, I’d rent a boat at the marina and go out just to explore the lake.  It is called Canyon Lake for a reason; the lake is in a canyon with waterways that branch off in all directions.  Many of these waterways lead to a dead end only accessible by small boats where you can sit in your craft and stare up at the soaring cliffs that tower hundreds of feet above the surface of the lake.  These spurs were usually very isolated, so I’d sometimes forget about fishing and just lay back in my boat and look up at the true magnificence of nature.  It was in these moments that I often wondered if there really was a god who made this place and put me there to observe his/her handiwork.  If so, I hope him/her knows that I was impressed.

During one of these lazy fishing trips, I heard the drag on my new Zebco reel (and rod) fiercely playing out.  Picking it up, I realized that my gear may just be over matched since I could not, at first, turn the fish that had taken my bait.  After 15 minutes or so of a back and forth struggle, the fish started to give in.  When I finally got the beast up to the side of my small skiff, I realized that it was a “Submarine” Carp and I knew that I could not get it in the boat and that I would eventually release it but, still, the massive size of the fish made me want others to see it and to get some idea of how big it was.  So, like Hemingway’s “Old Man And The Sea”, I hooked the fish up to my stringer and slowly, in deference to the Carp, made my way back to the marina. 

When I pulled up to the dock, I told the attendant what was up and that I’d like to weigh and measure the fish.  He took one look at it and agreed heartily.  So, after we tied up, we hauled the fish into the marina where there was a scale.  The Carp weighed 62 pounds and measured 44 inches in length, both statistics this attendant had never seen before. 

When we were finished, we carried the fish out to the dock and released it.  The attendant thought I was crazy, but I kept thinking about my grandpa and what he would do which was the same as I was doing.

Decades later, when I was a frustrated writer, ready to give up on the craft, I wrote a story about this incident called “Just Another Fish Story” which has never been published but did win a Blue Ribbon at the Ventura County Fair.  That ribbon, along with a few more, started me writing again after a decade or so of neglect of my craft.

So, fishing rebooted my desire to write and thus created this blog.

What goes around comes around…

Later that day…

Dungeness Crab

After ending my latest quest to catch something while surf fishing, I needed to stay on the Emma Wood State Beach side of town for a few hours so I could run an errand in the afternoon.  Instead of just prowling around all the interesting shops in Downtown Ventura while I waited for the time to pass, I went over to the Ventura Pier during the interim.

The weather could not have been better for the way I fish and there were surprisingly few anglers around.  I didn’t have my ultralight with me since I had not planned to use it, so I put the line on my Shakespeare ATS 350 reel & Shimano Saguaro rod outfit on the ocean bottom looking for sharks, rays, or a stray Halibut and fished over the side with my Shakespeare Contender reel & 8-foot Shimano FX 2803 rod.  It is a pretty big outfit, big enough to haul in a 5-foot Tiger Shark, but it is not really suited for drift lining.  Still, I had to use what I had on hand.

When it was time to go, my catch for the few hours I fished was 3 Mackerel, 1 Smelt, 1 Croaker, and the guy pictured above.  I am not a crab expert but apparently a passerby was, he was also a lover of crab meat. 

He told me that this is a Dungeness Crab which are very good to eat; he had eaten hundreds in his lifetime.  He also asked me if he could have this one.  I told him that I was going to let the guy go back into the ocean after I took his picture for my blog.  As if he knew what was going to happen, once the crab finished posing for the picture, he scuttled sideways to the edge of the pier and jumped in which gave all of us observers a good laugh.   

The now crab-less passerby stayed and we talked fishing.  He is from Atlanta, GA, maybe a 75-mile drive from where my sister lives.  He told me of a great place to fish which is about 4 hours from Atlanta but worth the trip. 

So, I am thinking that maybe its time to pack up my gear and pay sis a visit…  

Fishing on the edge of the world…

When I surf fish in the Pacific Ocean , I always say that I am fishing on the edge of the world. If you lake fish, you know the boundaries of the lake and most likely you know the depth of it as well. When you river or creek fish, you know the boundaries of those waterways and you know that their water will eventually end up somewhere, maybe even in the Pacific Ocean .

Surf fishing in a ocean is different. Though you can look at a map or a globe and see where all the water is located on the planet, you don’t really understand the enormity of the oceans until you stand at their edges while watching the endless waves come rushing at you. It is a humbling feeling for a man as you hold your rod and reel in hand hoping that the water will give up some of its bounty while you dance with the waves trying to decide if you are getting a bite or if the expanse is just playing tricks on you.

That was how I felt this morning while fishing at Emma Wood State Beach in Ventura, CA. This was only my fourth attempt as surf fishing and, including today, I have yet to catch anything while fishing this way even though I always catch something any other way be it in a boat, on a pier, or at lakeside or riverside.

If the past few attempts at this sport, I went out trying to snare some Surfperch or Corbina even though I usually don’t angle for that type of fish. Both times I gave up after a few hours of trying to get the trick of fishing in the constantly moving sea which is not the same a river fishing where you stand on the banks and watch the water go by.

Today, though, I wanted to try a new tack, I decided to try to fish on the ocean side of the surf and not directly in it. So, I took my Shakespeare ATS 350 reel & 9-foot Shimano Saguaro rod with me and cast over the incoming surf. My line was baited with a 4-ounce weight, a large hook, and a big chunk of either Squid or Mackerel and still the ocean tossed it all about as if it were nothing. My bait was often missing or torn up when I reeled in but if a fish was after it or not, I could not say. So, again, I left after a few hours with nothing to show for my efforts.

This does not mean that I am giving up on surf fishing, I am just going to try another new tack the next time. Today, the tide was coming in for the hours I was on the beach but since I am not really interested in fish that come and go with the tide, I will go out on a day when the tide is going out and see how that works.

I will keep you posted.

Stearns Wharf III: Big Mac Attack!

Plenty of Big Macs today

After my amazing day yesterday, I decided to visit Stearns Wharf again to see if the fishing is really is as good as it has been the last two times I was there.  I can now say that it is since this time I caught 33 Mackerel in 4 hours. 

When I arrived at the wharf just before 7 AM, the wind was howling, and a low fog lay on the water which drenched the wharf.  Because of the wind, and the way I fish, I had to cast my line in on one side of the wharf that I had not fished off before.  At the Ventura Pier, that is the “bad” side of the pier (as I see it) but it made no difference at the wharf.  Though I didn’t catch anything on my ocean bottom pole, I had plenty of BIG Mackerel to keep me busy.  In fact, after a few hours, I stopped bottom fishing and rigged my Shakespeare Contender reel & Shimano FX 2803 rod so the line would drift since by that time the wind had abated, and the sun was shining.  I put on a larger hook and used larger chunks of salted Mackerel for bait and sure enough, I started getting even bigger fish.  They were not as large as the “submarine” Mackerel that I used to catch off the Goleta Pier, those were all 24 inches or longer, but most of the Mackerel I caught today were around 15 inches each.  I wound up keeping 14 of them for bait and threw 19 back in with instructions telling them to send me a Halibut.

They must have ignored my orders since no flat fish were seen by me today. 

Stearns Wharf II: Shark, bass, and mackerel, oh my!

After my last fishing adventure at Stearns Wharf in Santa Barbara, CA where I caught 40 fish in 4 hours, I just had to go back to see if that was the norm or if I had just caught the area on a good day.  So, I went back today and though I only caught 14 fish in about 3 ½ hours, the Tiger Shark’s size and weight made up for a lot of that time.

Because of the wharf’s restriction on overhead casting, I took my Shakespeare Contender reel & 8-foot Shimano FX 2803 rod since I knew I could cast some distance with it even underhanded.  It is equipped with moss green 30lb test Spider Wire line so essentially the rig is better suited for freshwater but then I like to fish with light gear, so the fish have a chance.  That is why, in my mind, it is called sport fishing. 

I arrived at the wharf around 7 AM and was surprised that there were no other fishermen out there.  After about ½ hour of fishing as the Shakespeare’s line sat on the ocean floor with a large hook baited with a big chunk of Mackerel, I started catching fish on my ultra-light rig.  I didn’t have the continuous action like I had last week, but I stayed busy, eventually catching 7 Mackerel and 3 Calico Bass; but more on them later.

A local resident, with his kids and mother and father, saw me catch my biggest Mackerel and, as I do with all kids, I showed them the fish and told them about it. That is when the father told me that I had a fish on my other line.  I turned to see my Shimano FX 2803 bent nearly in half while the drag on my Shakespeare Contender reel hummed as it let out line.  Once more I thanked my grandfather for telling me repeatedly to always secure my pole.  If I had not done that, my rig would have been lost.  So, I put the Mackerel down and took my rig out of its holder.  That is when I knew I had a VERY big fish. 

The way that the fish was fighting, I knew it was a shark as opposed to a Bat Ray or Halibut, the only question was what kind of shark did I have on the line?  It pulled me down from one side of wharf to another which was good for me since that side was in open water away from the wharf’s pilings.  As I battled it, a large group of tourists gathered and several people asked me what I had caught, I could only tell them that I thought it was a shark and that if my line held, we would know what kind it was.  At first, I thought it might be a Shovel nose shark but the more I fought it, the more I thought that is was some other species.  When the Tiger Shark finally broke the surface, people got real excited, including me.  One lady was recording the battle, and everyone was taking pictures of the fish.  Fortunately, the local man had a boat in the harbor and was an experienced fisherman, so I asked him to get my gaff out of my bucket.  He had never used a pier gaff before, so he took the pole while I manned the gaff.  He was amazed at how strong the shark was.  We both figured it to be well over 5-foot-long and in the 150+ pound weight range. 

After a few tries, I managed to hook the shark’s tail and at that point, the beast was played out.  I fully intended to bring the shark on to the wharf but once it left the buoyancy of the ocean water, I realized just how much it must have weighed.  Even with the help of the local fisherman, we could barely budge it and since I was going to put it back in the ocean anyway, I decided to just cut my line and let it go after I took a few pictures.  I managed to work the gaff free then took out my knife while looking at the great fish that I had fought for the last 20 minutes or so, it looked totally exhausted as was I.  I told all the tourists to take their pictures and when they had finished, I cut my line to much applause from the audience who watched it swim away. 

Meanwhile, a Seagull ate the large Mackerel I caught and put down while I was fighting the Tiger Shark which I thought was tacky.  For the rest of the morning, when it came near me, I scared the hell out of it by yelling “Thanksgiving” at it which made the tourists think I was insane and got a few laughs.

My last catch of the day was a Calico Bass which I was sure would be my dinner today but it measured 13 inches long, one-inch shy of the legal limit. 

Still, it put up a hell of a fight on my ultra-light just like the shark did on my heavier gear.

Some days you just don’t feel like…

One of the variety caught today

…fishing.

I am sure you didn’t expect to see that word next and you would have a hard time convincing my wife and friends that this statement can be attributed to me, yet it is nonetheless true. Today was one of those days.

I can’t explain why I felt this way today. Maybe it was because I had “stuff” to do but when you are retired, “stuff” can always be done later. Maybe it was because I didn’t like the wind forecast; blowing as it was predicted would make fishing difficult. Or maybe I realized that I won’t have a day like I did the last time I went out: 40 fish caught in 4 hours.

Still, I went fishing.

The wind was as bad as predicted. The flags were nearly straight out all day. at my home base, the Ventura Pier, and though I only stayed for half as long as usual. I still caught four fish, all different species, but all small so the Skate, Perch, Croaker, and Smelt all went back into the Pacific.

I am planning an outing which will be an experiment that will combine three of my loves: Fishing, writing, and biking. This will be a first time for me so I don’t know how it will work out or if I will catch any fish, so stay tuned for the results.

The Old Man and the Seas hats and t-shirts are now available!

I saw a “Shut up and fish” t-shirt yesterday at the Stearns Wharf Bait and Tackle shop which I was going to buy but they were out of Mediums so I will get one the next time I fish on the wharf.

In the meantime, my blog’s hats and t-shirts are now available in all sizes and many colors.

Get yours today and go fishing!

The Old Man and the Seas T-shirts

The Old Man and the Seas Hats